How to Avoid the 50-50 Relationship Trap

One of the life lessons that we learn as early as kindergarten is the importance of sharing and compromise. While most young children have a very self-centered perspective, the process of teaching them to  be more considerate of others around them is understandably seen as a key developmental task. The adage goes that having good interpersonal relationships is about 50-50, meeting others “halfway”. Your responsibility is to do your part and expect the other party to reciprocate in kind. Makes perfect sense—until you grow up.

Relationships are a struggle—especially intimate ones. While they can elevate our feelings to mountaintop experiences they can also plummet them into undesirable lows. There are many reasons for the ups and downs in intimate relationships. But, clearly one is what I call the 50-50 trap.

What is the 50-50 trap?

When you assume that you can develop emotionally satisfying relationships by meeting the other party halfway you’ve fallen for the 50-50 trap. When you expect that you can reach mutual goals by going halfway you’ve fallen for the 50-50 trap. In sum, the 50-50 trap is the erroneous belief that you can reach 100% of your interpersonal goals by each party contributing equally.

For those of you who are football fans, let me use a football metaphor to visually illustrate a situation where we refuse to fall for the 50-50 trap.

The quarterback of your favorite team throws a pass across the middle of the field to his favorite wide receiver. The pass, however, is very poorly thrown.  To even have a chance for successfully catching it, the receiver will have to leap and fully extend his arms—making him dangerously vulnerable to the linebacker bearing down to deliver a vicious hit. As a result, the wide receiver short arms the pass as he braces for the hit from the linebacker. The ball sails over his head—incomplete pass.

Most football fans watching this play will criticize the quarterback’s poor throw. But, everyone will blame the receiver for not going all out to make the play. In other words, despite the quarterback’s shortcoming, the wide receiver was expected to do more to make the play successful. We don’t expect the quarterback to be satisfied that he got the ball in the general direction of the receiver nor do we exonerate the receiver because the ball was too high. We expect both of these players to take responsibility for this incomplete pass.  In football, good players and fans refuse to be satisfied with 50-50 efforts. If one player is compromised due to pressure or miscalculation we expect the other player to adjust and do what it takes to make the play. It isn’t about equal contribution to the play. It is about making the play. We football fans get it.

But, when it comes to our intimate relationships it’s a different story. We don’t get it. We struggle to see how it is incumbent upon each party to “go the extra mile” or push beyond expectations. We have difficulty accepting that we may have to do more than our fair share for our relationships to be superb.

If the other party doesn’t respond in a reciprocal manner to our efforts then blaming and criticism ensues. Examples abound. Maybe its the husband who is sole income provider for the home who fails to accept any relationship responsibility beyond paying the bills. It may be the mother who gives up trying to communicate with her teenage daughter because she broke the rules again. Even friends fall into the 50-50 trap when one refuses to call the other because she is tired of being the one who “always” initiates the conversations.

When we fall into the 50-50 trap, we feel like another person’s effort is only acceptable if it equals or exceeds our own. We feel like our responsibility is finished when we satisfy our agreed upon terms. In legal language, we use the term quid pro quo to capture the essence of the 50-50 trap. While quid pro quo has merit in the courtroom, it can wreak havoc on your relationships because it leaves little room for grace.

Family, work, ministry, and community relationships flourish in an environment where each party feels a commitment to do whatever it takes to reach mutual goals. Ideally, that entails each person giving his or her best effort. But, what happens when the ideal is not met? Sometimes, life gets in the way. Other times, expectations were unrealistic. And, of course, there are those times when the other person never intends to be an equal contributor to the relationship. While the reasons vary, they inevitably leave one or both parties feeling wronged.

How do you respond in each of these instances?

When you feel a spouse, partner, colleague, or friend isn’t fulfilling their side of an agreement, here are seven ways to respond:

Step 1: Confirm that expectations for each person are clear
Step 2: Communicate how it would feel for you personally for these expectations to be achieved
Step 3: Encourage incremental steps the person has already taken
Step 4: Look for opportunities to give a little more than you are required to do
Step 5: Maintain boundaries so that others do not take advantage of the generosity that you demonstrate
Step 6: Solicit the advice / mediation of an objective third-party
Step 7: If unbalance persists, reset your expectations (and where applicable consider if this relationship is worthy of your level of investment)

Ultimately, each of these steps is an attempt to extend grace, where it may not be deserved. The golden rule suggests that we should treat others the way we would like to be treated. We all need grace—at one point or another. Those who give grace, receive grace. Those who willfully withhold grace bring judgment upon themselves.

The 50-50 trap is sprung by self-centeredness. It is a mindset. But, those who gracefully extend themselves to others have deeper,  richer, and ultimately more trusting relationships that position them for success.

What are some examples of the 50-50 trap in your home? How about in your workplace or church? Which of the seven steps seems hardest for you personally?

Leave a comment below.